September 19, 2017

Ecology, controls and short-term expedients

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This interview, by Michael Glenny, was broadcast over Radio Free Europe around the time of the launch of The Ecologist in 1970, as part of the “Can We Survive Our Future” radio symposium.

It was later published in an edited compendium of interviews broadcast between 1970 and 1971 on Radio Free Europe (Can we survive our future?, edited and introduced by George (G. R.) Urban with Michael Glenny, Bodley Head, London, 1972).

Editors note: The interview reveals the foresight of Goldsmith’s ecological approach. Particular emphasis is made to the importance of innate cultural controls, rather than external coercive force, to resolve self-induced problems facing society.

“Edward Goldsmith was educated in a variety of schools in England, France, Switzerland, the West Indies and Canada, before going up to Oxford University to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. For the past six years he has devoted his entire time to his main interest in life: the development of a unified science – and he has written a book and a number of articles on the subject, as well as lecturing widely on more general ecological matters. In 1970 he founded The Ecologist magazine, of which he is the editor.”

Michael Glenny: Could you give us a very brief definition of the word ‘ecology’, and then an explanation of the philosophy that lies behind your journal that you have entitled The Ecologist?

Goldsmith: Ecology is normally regarded as the study of the inter-relationships of organisms between each other and the various resources on which they live. We propose to use the term in a somewhat different way, in accordance with a newer use of the term already current in certain universities. We want to regard it as the study of the whole effect of human processes and actions of different sorts on the total environment.

Used in this sense, ecology is more of an approach than a conventional discipline. And this approach could be used to study absolutely everything in the world in which we live; for instance, an ecological approach to medicine would be to study not the specific effects of acts undertaken by doctors, but the total effects on the body as a whole and possibly even the social effects of doctors behaving in a particular way.

Unfortunately, people have been looking at things in quite the opposite way, especially in recent times. The result has been to see things from the very short-term point of view and in terms of specific targets, rather than from a long-term standpoint and in global terms. We want to influence them to look at the whole rather than the parts and to see the long-term future of man, which unfortunately has been very seriously compromised in every field by the short-term approach.

This narrow attitude is typical of politicians who are merely interested in obtaining votes, or businessmen who only want to make quick profits, and of trade unions who are interested in getting the maximum benefits for their members regardless of the cost to society. Scientists are also too interested in short-term results; they look at their own little subject and are not particularly concerned about the effect of what they’re doing on the world as a whole. I think the scientists must be held very much responsible for many of the things that are going wrong at the moment.

Glenny: Your initiative is obviously an extremely important one. Who do you believe is going to read your journal? What will be its effect?

Our magazine is aimed at the general educated public, the sort of people who in this country would read the serious weekly journals. It is also aimed at academics. I don’t think one can expect politicians to pass the necessary legislation to solve our various environmental problems unless there’s a very strong and highly organised public opinion – a very strong lobby, in fact. We would like public opinion to be seriously awakened to the extreme urgency of man’s position on the planet Earth at the moment, and I think it is conceivable that the correct measures will be taken by industrialists and by politicians when public opinion is so awakened.

Whether we shall be able to achieve this or not is another question. I am fairly optimistic. I think that youth is going to be very responsive to our message and that it will arouse great interest in schools. This is perhaps the most we can achieve, because changes are bound to occur slowly; but it is on youth, who will be running this country in the next ten or twenty years, that we can count the most.

Glenny: You are, I suppose, one of the front runners in a trend of public opinion which is beginning to make itself widely felt. However, there are centres of power both in the East and in the West which are as yet unaffected by your message. I am thinking in particular of many of the Communist countries and the countries of the Third World who would simply dismiss your message as irrelevant to their problems.

I don’t think the people in the Communist countries would dismiss the message as irrelevant. They are responsible for a considerable amount of environmental disruption, certainly in the Soviet Union. It appears that the Communist countries are having problems very similar to those of the Capitalist countries. Undoubtedly in Capitalist countries the profit motive does lead to very irresponsible behaviour, but in Communist countries where there is not the same profit motive, you will also find that there is irresponsible economic development whose object presumably is to give people more jobs or to increase their standard of living in accordance with present cultural values.

However, I agree much more with what you say about the Third World. That’s a quite different problem, because there they are only beginning to be industrialised and have not yet been disillusioned as to the benefits of so-called progress – by which I mean economic expansion. This is going to be a major problem.

In fact, The Ecologist refers in one issue to what it calls “the biggest confidence trick of all time”: our efforts to destroy the cultural patterns of ‘primitive’ tribes in ‘underdeveloped’ or developing countries. Such cultural patterns have enabled these peoples to lead ecologically sound existences for a very long time – until they are interfered with by industrialised nations, who destroy these cultural patterns and inculcate in their place a set of values which is inextricably linked with the notion of economic growth.

We are going to create an enormous demand for things that we simply will not be able to give them, because the standard of affluence achieved in Western nations will never be attained in the Third World. It is absolutely impossible, for many reasons. First of all, the pollution generated by the amount of economic activity this would involve would be intolerable.

Take, for instance, the case of radioactive pollution. A Russian scientist, Professor Polikarpov, has recently written a book called The Radio-Ecology of Aquatic Organisms, in which he shows that the effect of radio-active waste on such organisms is much worse than anyone has hitherto suspected. While scientists are very concerned with observable effects, too little attention is paid to non-lethal long-term effects; yet these can be very very serious, especially on the larvae. According to Professor Polikarpov, it is inadmissible to put any more radioactive waste into the seas without compromising this, the most important biomass in the world, which is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s protein intake – and for some countries like Japan and the Phillipines, over 50 percent.

Britain, with about 1½ percent of the world’s population, is producing at the moment half of the world’s nuclear power. Imagine what would happen if everybody was producing nuclear power at the same rate as Great Britain and dumping the radioactive waste in the sea. This would probably lead to the disappearance of all life in the seas; think, too, of the effect on the people subjected to radio-isotopes in the air.

Then take another aspect of it: the heat generated – thermal pollution. In 30 years’ time it is considered that in that vast urban conglomeration which has spread between Boston and Washington (to be called BosWash, I believe) 50 percent of the atmospheric heat will be man-made. It appears that only a small change in the temperature of the atmosphere, about 2 percent, is sufficient to cause the polar ice-caps to melt, flooding most of the world’s major cities.

The question arises as to how much man-made heat can be absorbed before such a climatic change takes place, and at our present rate of economic growth, how long will it take for this to occur? Various calculations have been made. Some suggest that it will take another seventy years, others more. What is important is that a point must eventually be reached when no more man-made heat can be absorbed and this point is not that far off. Therefore if you propose that all the countries in the world must achieve the American standard of living, the answer is that such a state of affairs is simply beyond the physical capacity of our planet.

Consider it from another point of view – natural resources. There are not enough natural resources available in the world to enable the people in the Third World to achieve the standard of living that we think they should have. The world’s oil reserves, for instance, can only last another 70 years, and about 10 out of the 20 minerals in greatest use in industry today will no longer be available in 30 years’ time. We will have to depend on recycled scrap metals, and perhaps on tapping uneconomic sources, which means that mineral prices will be much higher. It is true that with advanced technology we are capable of utilising sources of copper, for instance, that were deemed totally uneconomic 20 years ago, but nevertheless, a point comes when returns diminish beyond zero and eventually become negative.

You cannot go on applying more and more technology to less and less natural resources. Already we in Britain, for instance, are feeling the effect of negative returns on technology applied to agriculture – our so-called intensive agriculture, which we are trying to persuade the Third World to adopt. We are trying to force the latter to relinquish their very sound methods of agriculture in order to intensify their farming – which means more machines, more artificial fertilizers and more pesticides. In the long run, though, this is no substitute for sound husbandry, and by applying more of our methods they will eventually obtain smaller and smaller returns.

Glenny: The agricultural policies that we are offering the Third World will also presumably lead to more rural unemployment in these countries, with a consequent increase in urbanisation?

I should think this is possibly one of the most important problems we have to face today – the problem of rapid urbanisation in certain parts of the Third World. The population of some cities is increasing by more than 10 percent per annum, and it is becoming impossible to find jobs, houses, provide sewage facilities, education and medical services for so many people.

Apart from this, when they get into cities, their cultural patterns break down; the rate of delinquency goes up, crime, drug addiction, alcoholism and all the various manifestations of social disorder increase radically. We must realise, which I believe some people are realising already, that it is better to pay a little more for our food than to have social chaos in the cities of the Third World.

Obviously there are dangers involved in disrupting the traditional agriculture and cultural patterns in regions such as Africa. Yet there is another side to the coin as well, namely that many of the rural economies of Africa have for centuries suffered from acute in-built defects, such as chronic protein shortage in some areas of East Africa or endemic deficiency diseases such as beri-beri, yaws and kwashiokor. The efforts of modern medicine and changes in agricultural patterns are beginning to eliminate these curses, which are surely just as debilitating to human ecology as are some of the dangers which are threatened by technological progress.

What I shall say now is not going to be very popular. I believe there is no evidence to prove that modern medicine as we are practising it in Africa is going to improve the long-term health of the people there. For instance, it is easy enough to wipe out certain diseases like malaria or yaws. But in many areas where malaria was endemic, people did not die of it, they were just debilitated.

By introducing massive antimalaria operations, we have done two things: firstly, we have destroyed the people’s natural immunity against malaria, which means that when an epidemic comes in from the outside, the population is going to get the disease really badly and die from it. I was talking only yesterday to a friend of mine, a radio-doctor in Lagos, who was telling me that people coming in from rural schools to the capital were subjected to anti-malarial treatment, and when they went back to their homes they caught malaria and died from it. Why? Because they had lost their natural immunity.

Secondly, the widespread use of chemical insecticides such as DDT is having a very serious effect on the ecological balance, by destroying certain extremely important species of animals and birds, predators that are essential for controlling insect pests. This means that in some cases we are actually creating pests, in that insects that were once perfectly well controlled by their natural predators are now appearing in plague proportions.

Glenny: Some people would interpret what you say as being somewhat callous. You maintain that the measures taken to control disease and to raise agricultural productivity in the short term are actually harmful; but surely what is happening is that a great deal more people are being fed and are able to lead at least halfway reasonable lives who otherwise would simply be dead?

This is true. But it must be understood that these short-term methods, these expedients that are in use today simply succeed in putting off the day of reckoning, and the more you put it off, the worse it will be. On the other hand, I do agree that there is a very good case for using such methods on humanitarian grounds. Obviously we cannot allow people to starve; but only on condition that we take the necessary long-term measures as well, so as to prevent this final day of reckoning. If we take the short-term measures without the long-term ones we are heading for catastrophe.

Glenny: I take this point, but nevertheless, I would still not like you to get away without conceding that there is a more positive aspect of present policies, such as those which are aimed at restoring ecological systems which have been destroyed not by wicked technological man but over the centuries by ignorant non-technological man. I refer for instance to the denudation that is occurring over large areas of East Africa by the uncontrolled herding of cattle by such people as the Masai who, when their herds have destroyed all the pasture in one area and have induced erosion, then move off en masse to another area to repeat the process. Before very long there will not be any pasture left for them. Is there not a case for guiding them into better and more rational practices in a way which need not necessarily upset their cultural patterns?

There is, but I still maintain that any interference with the way of life of the Masai or other pastoralists is likely to have very serious consequences on their social structure and on their way of life. If you break down the society of the Masai they will just pour into the cities, live in shanty towns and simply become members of the impoverished and depressed proletariat – which is what you want to avoid. Every effort should be made to maintain the essentially healthy social structures of these people.

Now before we can modify the customs of the Masai, the problem is to understand the function of their customs. One must furthermore understand that all behavioural traits are functional, that a culture itself is an adaptive response to a long-term environmental situation; this is something which very many anthropologists in this country would refuse to accept. They refuse to look at these things in a functional manner, though, in fact, the founders of British anthropology such as Malinowski would have certainly agreed with the functional approach.

You cannot simply pass a law and tell the Masai not to have any cattle; what you can do – and it would have to be done with extreme care – is to find a functional substitute for the possession of cattle, which of course can only be done when you understand the exact cultural role of owning cattle.

I give you an example of the lines on which this might be done. In one of the islands off New Guinea there were head-hunters. The Dutch thought this very immoral and tried, with considerable subtlety, to get rid of this custom. The reason why these people indulged in head-hunting was that they considered their ancestors to require company in their graves, and a head was apparently suitable company for them.

Once they were told that they could not cut people’s heads off, they were in a terrible quandary, because they were caught between the fear of their infuriated dead ancestors who would take revenge on them, and the fear of living Dutchmen who would send them to gaol. Their cultural pattern might quite easily have collapsed but the Dutch, as I have said, were quite subtle; they introduced a functional substitute for a human head in the form of a little dried bird, and they succeeded in persuading these people that a dried bird was just as satisfactory company for their dead ancestors. So the whole cultural pattern remained intact, with just a slight change.

In the same way, the ancient Egyptians, like the Sumerians, used to bury all the courtiers with their dead king, until eventually someone hit upon the good idea of burying small ceramic effigies of the courtiers, which were regarded as acceptable substitutes. A similar thing would have to be done with the Masai: you would have to persuade them that prestige and economic benefit could be achieved by other means than keeping cattle – for instance by accumulating other things that are less harmful to the land. Ideally it might be eland, for instance, or other game. We know that the African bush can support a vastly greater amount of game than it can domestic cattle. To solve this problem in the right way means introducing cultural controls, which are infinitely more effective than coercive measures.

Glenny: The question of controls is undoubtedly the crucial aspect of what we are discussing. In your leading article in the first issue of The Ecologist you write a sentence which seems to me to contain the nub of the problem: “Thus to control population, we may have to interfere with ‘personal liberty’, while to reduce economic expansion, we are forced to curb the march of ‘progress’. But surely all this is but a small price to pay if we consider the long-term alternative to such a policy.” 


Looked at from one angle, the price may indeed be a small one; nevertheless, it will be an extremely difficult one to pay, certainly in political terms. You are proposing controls at two levels; firstly, a control of science and technology at the administrative level, or shall we say at the economic level if one uses fiscal rather than administrative measures to control it; the second form of control is quite simply the control of people.


This is a very sensitive area, particularly in a world which has seen the rapid rise in this century of totalitarian systems. You say that we may have to interfere with personal liberty. I think that if what you are suggesting were put into effect, the encroachment upon democratic values and their safeguards might be most unwelcome in certain societies. For instance, you might have to control people’s child-bearing habits in a way which now is simply not contemplated. You would certainly have to control people’s economic lives, hence their social behaviour, and gradually the logical result could be the control of people’s behaviour in its widest sense. Any government will arouse insuperable opposition if it tries to put such controls into effect.

Let me deal with this on a theoretical level. A stable society is subjected to as many controls as an unstable one. Let us take a ‘simple’ society – an African or an Australian aboriginal tribe. Such a society displays order and is capable of adapting to environmental changes of a predictable sort, that is to say within given parameters.

When I say it displays order, the different parts or individuals are subject to constraints which limit their range of choices, which I think is a normal definition of order. What is important is that each of these constraints is in turn subjected to the constraints of the system – in this case, the society as a whole. These constraints are basically what keeps such a society behaving in an adaptive way, and they are embodied in its traditions – traditions such as fear of the ancestors and of other forces invoked to make people act properly in accordance with tribal behaviour-patterns.

All these forces or constraints which make them behave in this way are part of the society’s self-regulating mechanisms – in which public opinion plays a big part. This is tremendously important, because in such conditions there is no need whatsoever for any of what are known as ‘asystemic’ controls. A simple society of this sort will not have a dictator or tyrant. In fact one of the themes of Aristotle’s Politics is that there is no need for dictators until society breaks down. Simple, ordered societies do not normally even have kings, and when a larger or more centralised society does have a king, he only has limited power. The king of a traditional African society can be dethroned if he breaks any tribal tradition, simply by a show of hands, which is exactly what happened to a king of a Homeric city, who in traditional Hellenic society ruled with only a minimal degree of sovereignty which was always subordinated to the opinion of the people. The king had to abide by that opinion or he was thrown out.

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